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Jim Kenyon: Snow Shoveling as Civic Duty

Equipped with his own broom and a 10-pound bag of rock salt, artist Jeffrey Simpson cleared the dusting of fresh snow from the town sidewalk outside his home and shop in Woodstock on Wednesday morning.

Now that’s what I call citizen engagement.

But making the 60-foot stretch of sidewalk in front of his property safe for pedestrians last week, Simpson was doing more than performing a good deed. In the village of Woodstock, which covers the downtown shopping area and surrounding residential neighborhoods, it’s the law. Removing snow and ice from sidewalks is the responsibility of abutting property owners — not local government.

So much for your tax dollars at work. Or, in this case, at rest.

I assumed that clearing sidewalks during the winter fell into the why-people-pay-property-taxes category. Like plowing roads and fixing potholes, it’s a basic government service.

Simpson, 64, didn’t seem to agree with the do-it-yourself approach to winter maintenance of sidewalks. But he’s lived in the village for 14 years. That’s long enough to figure out that, as with winter itself, complaining won’t do any good.

Apparently, this is the way it’s been done in the village for more than 100 years. So, like other residents and shopkeepers I talked with, Simpson continues to shovel, sweep and throw down rock salt — or hire a private contractor to do the job for them — without much of a fuss. Still, when a newspaper reporter with a notepad and pen interrupts his cleanup, he is willing to share his views.

“I don’t understand it, when the sidewalk is a public place,” said Simpson, whose property is on Central Street, the main thoroughfare into the tourist-dependent village. “A lot of people are walking up and down this street. (Residents and merchants) are not just keeping the sidewalk safe for ourselves and customers, but the town.”

A recent story in the Vermont Standard, the Woodstock-based weekly paper, made me realize that owning property in a high-rent district does have its drawbacks. The story was about a Woodstock property owner who was hauled into court last month after not paying two fines for failing to shovel several years ago.

The woman, who I couldn’t reach last week, owns a shuttered building on Central Street. Although she’s kept the sidewalk cleared this winter, that’s not always been the case, Town Manager Phil Swanson told me. On Feb. 11, the woman paid $170 in fines and penalties at the courthouse in White River Junction, according to court records that I looked at.

In Woodstock, village people have 24 hours to clean up after a winter storm. It’s rare they fail to comply, Swanson said. But when the village comes across a shoveling slacker, police put a reminder on his or her front door. If that doesn’t work, the village arranges for the sidewalk to be shoveled — at a rate of $40 an hour — and bills the property owner. The village can also a levy a $25 fine on non-shovelers.

I’ve discovered that many U.S. snowbelt cities make residents and commercial property owners shovel their abutting sidewalk. (In Boston, the fine for not doing so is up to $200.) I guess there’s something to be said for hands-off government. But I think a village that raked in $110,558 in parking meter fees and parking fines last year could afford to employ a sidewalk shoveler or two.

Other Upper Valley towns do. “If we stopped plowing sidewalks, we’d be lynched,” said Hartford Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg. “It’s a long held, valued expectation.”

I learned from Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin that New Hampshire law prohibits towns from passing the buck — and the shovel, too — onto property owners. Which makes sense. The public, particularly people with disabilities, has a right to expect publicly funded sidewalks to be accessible in winter months. (In Woodstock, the village maintains responsibility for the repair and replacement of sidewalks.)

Taking care of sidewalks in the winter is not inexpensive. Hanover has roughly $325,000 invested in three sidewalk tractors and expends an average of 700 hours on clearing its 14 miles of sidewalks.

The village of Woodstock has about four miles, said Swanson. Some sidewalks are considered more public than others. As a result, snow and ice removal on the walkways inside the Green are the village’s responsibility.

A few years ago, a committee consisting of village officials, residents and merchants studied the idea of hiring a private contractor, who would be paid with tax dollars, to clear all sidewalks. The committee estimated it would cost $45,000, on top of the $10,000 the village is already spending on areas including the Green.

But at the annual village meeting in March 2012, voters made it clear that they wanted to keep shoveling. An article to maintain the status quo passed, 75-33. (The village has about 800 registered voters.)

Last week, I stopped by the Unicorn gift store, Jeff Kahn’s shop in the village. “I don’t want additional taxes,” he said, which was only a partial explanation of why he voted to keep the shoveling ordinance. A shopkeeper and property owner in the village for more than 30 years, Kahn said it was also a matter of civic pride.

“It’s our responsibility to shovel,” he said. “It’s another way for people to step up. And if you don’t like how it’s done, you have no one to complain about but yourself.”

I like the spirit. I’m just not sure that in a winter like we’re experiencing now that my back would.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.